From Science & Society, XLI:4, Winter 1977-1978, 448-64. This
essay records not only the beginning of the end of my
Marxism, but also an incipient conviction, then a mere suspicion, that
one thing a philosopher ought to avoid is to make problematic the
existence of philosophical criticism. In my view, that's what every materialist does.
readers in a hurry, here are the key paragraphs from Section III:
Marx does not view the interest in social identity as a relatively
autonomous human dimension, but rather relegates it to a subordinate
aspect of the interest in control over nature.
In Marx’s writings, Habermas argues, one finds
that the “absolute ego of social production is founded in a history
of nature that brings about the tool-making animal as a result.” 
Marx himself declared that human beings “begin
to distinguish themselves from animals as soon as they begin to
produce their means of subsistence, a step that is conditioned by
their bodily organization” and that the “first state of affairs of
which to take note is therefore the bodily organization of these
individuals and the relation it sets up between them and the rest of
In other words, what is distinct about the human species is—above
all, if not solely—its instrumental relation to nature.
Here Habermas differs with Marx. For Habermas, the human species’
interests in identity and control over nature are coequal and
distinct aspects of the species’ self-generative act.
If what Marx claimed on this point were literally true, Marx’s own
critique of mystificatory ideology would be incomprehensible because
that critique by no means logically follows from the concept of
It can only be comprehended as an instance of human
self-comprehension which, as we have attempted to argue earlier in
this paper, must be brought under the categorical framework of
By restricting himself to the categorical framework of instrumental
action, Marx is forced to misconceive his own critique as natural
This paper, despite its many infelicities, was one of the first on its
topic. (See the note appended to this
Update August 18, 2019
Habermas's Critique of
Habermas’s assessment of Marxism consists of both a defense and a
critique. According to Habermas, Marx held the key to incorporating the
German idealistic philosophical tradition into his critique of Hegel’s
philosophy of subject-object identity, but failed to use it fully.
Habermas’s view, Marx only partially resisted positivistic social
theory’s attack upon epistemology and consequently adopted a framework
of sociological inquiry that actually prevents critical self-reflection,
the methodological foundation of the theoretical recognition of the
human interests in identity, control over nature, and emancipation.
spite of Marx’s obvious concern for the self-emancipation of the human
species, his naturalistic theoretical framework, Habermas contends,
cannot articulate that freedom’s realization except as the automatic
by-product of natural-historic evolution.
shall here examine Habermas’s theory of “cognitive interests” insofar as
it determines his critique of Marxism, to which critique we shall then
turn. I hope to show that Habermas’s view of Marxism is a
sympathetically critical one from Marxists should learn, even as they
attempt to answer it.
Habermas’s critique, which is founded upon a notion of reflectively
grasped cognitive interests, avoids the “circle” of every
epistemological enterprise while simultaneously making necessary a
“materialization” of epistemology. This “circle” of epistemology may be
understood in the following way.
Consider that for any proposition p and a particular
epistemological criterion c, one may claim that “I know p
by appeal to c.” The problem is to determine what criterion one
appeals to when p = c.
Clearly, c is eliminated as a
possibility since in this case its own truth happens to be in question;
on the other hand, any metacriterion, for example c’, shares the
same difficulty as c.
The application of a criterion of truth to
itself is circular and consequently meaningless, while any termination
of the theoretically endless series of “criteria of criteria” is just as
the substance of Hegel’s criticism of the epistemological enterprise
whose most famous practitioner was Immanuel Kant.
justification-framework must be abandoned as wrong-headed as well as
theoretically impossible, for, as Habermas quotes Hegel, what “is
demanded is thus the following: we should know the cognitive faculty
before we know. It is like wanting to swim before going in the water. The investigation of the faculty of knowledge is itself knowledge and
cannot arrive at its goal because it is this goal already.”
Hegel, phenomenological self-reflection accomplishes what epistemology
hopes to, but cannot, bring to pass: the establishment of the foundation
of knowledge as certain, that is, invulnerable to the attacks of
Since the removal of such doubt is a process
internal to the thinking subject, that process cannot be completed
via non-subjective argumentation. If a criterion does remove doubt,
then it is already one with the certain knowledge that is sought;
therefore, it is meaningless to refer to it as a criterion, as if to
distinguish its existence from its object, the unassailable foundation
this reflection, then? It is essentially a remembering of knowledge
already in one’s own possession. To go through the motions of erecting
a justification external to a given knowledge-claim and then to “apply”
it to that claim so as to “verify” the latter is to engage in
self-deception. All one needs to do is to note the immediacy of the
knowledge one is unnecessarily trying to justify. Reflection uncovers
this immediacy and recognizes it as the foundation sought.
foundation of science, which one can immediately grasp through
phenomenological self-reflection, is for Hegel the principle of
subject-object identity. This identity, or Absolute Knowledge, is a
truth unrecognized by us in our everyday consciousness.
Phenomenology of Spirit, Hegel tries to demonstrate that this
identity is hidden under layers of consciousness which can be
phenomenologically penetrated, starting with the pseudo-”immediacy” of
purpose here is not to travel the Phenomenology’s tortuous path
from this pseudo-”immediacy” to true, subject-object immediacy, even if
we were capable of doing so.
We must instead focus on Habermas’s
retention of Hegel’s concept of self-reflection along with his rejection
of Hegel’s philosophy of identity.
For Habermas, self-reflection
uncovers knowledge-constitutive interests which inhere in Reason
and which are more fruitfully articulated within the framework of a
social theory than in that of an absolute idealism.
Habermas accepts Hegel’s critique of epistemology without fully
accepting what Hegel offers as a solution, just as he accepts Marx’s
critique of Hegel without fully accepting Marx’s sociological framework.
According to Habermas, Hegel never really demonstrates subject-object
identity in his famous work, but rather assumes its possibility
beforehand and then contrives a literary path which “leads” one to its
(pre)destination. This undercuts the force of Hegel’s argument and
compels us to look elsewhere for the foundations of a critical,
non-positivistic social theory.
Habermas’s materialism is affirmed in his criticism of Hegel’s
conception of nature as the alienation of Logic, which alienation is
overcome in self-conscious Spirit which recognizes nothing outside
itself. As Habermas writes (concurring with Marx):
Habermas, as for Marx, this proposition is intolerably false: nature
does not owe its existence to any stage in the development of Spirit.
Spirit and mind are always human spirit and mind, and insofar as
humanity has a natural origin, nature must precede mind—logically as
well as chronologically—as mind’s “absolutely ground.”
Thus, “the seal placed on absolute knowledge by the philosophy of
identity is broken if the externality of nature . . . not only seems
external to a consciousness that finds itself within nature but refers
instead to the immediacy of a substratum on which the minds contingently
Habermas has difficulties with both ends of the spectrum from Kant to
Hegel. But as we shall see, the insights gained from his study of Kant, Fichte, and Hegel lead Habermas to the conclusion that Marx failed to
present enough of the sociological picture: according to Habermas, Marx
overreacted to Hegel’s dialectics of interaction, even though the latter
are themselves the product of a philosophical one-sidedness and are
embedded in an idealism rejected by both Marx and Habermas.
In Habermas’s view, Marx contributed an indispensable—perhaps the more
important part—of the picture through his dialectics of labor, and for
this we owe him much. But insofar as Marx presented his partial truth
as the whole truth, it must be corrected to account for a feature of
human existence which claims a status equal to that of labor. We shall
return to Habermas’s criticism of Marx after examining the former’s
categories of knowledge-constitutive interests.
“interests,” Habermas means
the basic orientations rooted in specific
fundamental conditions of the possible reproduction and
self-constitution of the human species, namely work and interaction .
. . . Knowledge-constitutive interest can be described exclusively
as a function of the objectively constituted problems of the
preservation of life that have been solved by the cultural forms of
existence as such.
may note that Habermas has not one but two categories articulating
conditions of human existence, namely, “reproduction and
self-constitution,” which respectively are referred to by “work and
view, knowing does not occur outside the context of society: knowledge
is constituted by the interests that are generated by the
above-mentioned “fundamental conditions” of human existence.
beings have two basic orientations that determine their survival and
development, one toward nature and another toward each other.
these two orientations or interests are internally related to each other,
and though the activities each generates together form a unity in what Habermas calls “material synthesis,” they must remain distinguishable at
the level of socio-historical investigation. A closer look at these two
interest in now in order.
technical cognitive interest (TCI) may be referred to as the
interest in control over natural processes. The relationship of
man to nature is logically invariant and is well-articulated in the
dictum of Francis Bacon that nature, to be commanded, but first be
obeyed. The human species empirically accumulates and rationally
organizes information into laws from which can be derived technical
rules whose employment extends human control over nature.
operate in what Habermas calls systems of purposive-rational
(instrumental and strategic) action (PRAS’s). The man-nature
relationship is essentially a means-end affair in which nature is
transformed instrumentally, i.e., to realize certain human ends.
beings approach their natural environment monologically: nature is not
“consulted” about what is done to it or said about it.
The TCI is also
referred to by Habermas as the Kantian moment of material synthesis.
practical cognitive interest (PCI) may be referred to as the
interest in identity. Human beings do not simply relate to
nature: they must relate to each other in a definite fashion. They have
a conception of themselves that they retain in their practical conduct
and which partially determines this conduct, i.e., what is undertaken in PRAS’s.
Human beings expect certain behavior from each other, not just
from nature. These mutual expectations are articulated in intersubjectively shared ordinary language in the form of social
norms which govern what Habermas calls symbolic (communicative)
interaction systems (SIS’s).
These systems refer to the various ways
human beings practically organize themselves to achieve social ends.
self-conception of the social subjects determines how they deal with
nature, their object. In organizing themselves, human beings become
their own objects; but owing to their subjectivity, they cannot really
treat themselves like the objectified processes of nature.
words, while PRAS’s entail a subject-object relation that is monologic
in character, SIS’s entail a subject-object relation that is really a
subject-subject relation which is necessarily dialogic in nature:
the “object” (really, human subjects) has a say about is done to “it” or
said about “it”; if it does not have such a say the subject matter has
been entirely misunderstood.
Insofar as SIS’s do not involve a
deference to the object (as in PRAS’s), but rather a positing of the
subject itself, Habermas refers to the PCI as the Fichtean moment of
and the PCI form a dialectical unity in material synthesis which as a
whole is guided by the more general human interest in autonomy and
responsibility, or in a word, freedom. This interest in overcoming
domination by both nature and by fellow human beings underlies PRAS’s
and SIS’s, while each of these systems is guided by its own cognitive
This overarching knowledge-constitutive interest is what Habermas calls the emancipatory cognitive interest (abbreviated
hereafter as ECI); it is the Hegelian moment unifying the other two.
The ECI is the lifeline of Reason: Reason inheres in the interest in
freedom. Reason “lives” in the
reflexive remembering which draws out the transcendental aspects of
human existence (the TCI and the PCI). To quote Habermas:
is both striven for and known: it is neither effortlessly nor
unconsciously acquired and enjoyed.
Freedom as a condition of human
existence marked by autonomy and responsibility is a goal which is at
once an object of theory and practice. The interest in freedom is thus
an inseverable bond of theory and practice.
Habermas takes these explicitly Hegelian themes of freedom and reason
very seriously, but secures them within a materialistic critique of
Hegel’s philosophy of subject-object identity and of Hegel’s theoretical
treatment of nature as the alienation of mind. While Marx, Habermas
acknowledges, was the first to provide the basis of a non-idealistic
rendering of Hegel’s insights into social reality, Marx unfortunately
overreacted to Hegel’s dialectics of the interaction between
Habermas’s view, Marx, in his justified rejection of Hegel’s absolute
idealism, nonetheless cut himself off from what must be preserved, even
if transformed. He replaced one one-sidedness with another: he attempted
to let man’s invariant relation to nature, rather than intersubjective
interaction, tell the whole story.
Habermas believes we must reassess
Marx’s contributions to identify and criticize those elements in his
writings which have given rise to positivistic misinterpretations of his
more dialectical intentions.
essay, “Labor and Interaction: Remarks on Hegel’s Jena Philosophy of
Mind,” Habermas argues that Hegel
once held labor to be a constitutive moment of developing Spirit along
with language and interaction (action based on mutual expectation), but
later abandoned this perspective.
From about the time he wrote the
Phenomenology (1806) until his death, Hegel maintained a philosophy
of Spirit which subordinated language to a mediation of imagination and
memory within “subjective spirit,” while labor as instrumental action
disappears entirely. Social labor is dealt with under the rubric
“systems of needs” within “objective spirit,” which is manifested in the
realm of law and politics.
because of the truth of a proposition recognized in his earlier system,
namely (as Habermas puts it), that “[i]nstrumental action, at least when
solitary, is monologic action,”
Hegel later faced the difficulty of expressing such action within his
philosophy of universal interaction.
Labor as social labor, as
need-satisfaction, as a system of intersubjective cooperation, fits
easily within such a philosophy; but this is simply not true for labor
as instrumental action, as a relation between subject and a non-subject
As Marx wrote, the externality of nature was for Hegel “an
alienation, a fault, a weakness that should not exist.”
Hegel attempted to “eliminate” this weakness by conceiving nature not
merely as object (Gegenstand), but as adversary (Gegenspieler)
Instrumental activity upon nature is not a problem if nature is not an
externality at all, but an alienation. Alienation can occur only within
and for a consciousness which merely appears to itself as something
external to itself.
In Hegel’s Encyclopedia of the Philosophical
Sciences, sec. 384, Habermas finds that the
manifesting which . . .
is the becoming of nature, as the manifesting of spirit, which is free
[in history], is the positing of nature as the spirit’s world; a
positing which as reflection is at the same time a prepositing of the
world as independent nature.
recall our earlier discussion of Habermas’s and Marx’s criticisms of
Hegel’s conception of a nature which exists only insofar as Spirit
“reflexively remembers” it.
We can now see that Hegel needed this
patently untenable notion in order to be able to apply his principle of
Hegel was able to deal with labor only if he
first reduced it to interaction, to a struggle for recognition. Habermas
explains that if
subjectivity can always be found in what has been objectivized, if
behind the masks of objects, nature can always be revealed as the
concealed partner, then the basic dialectical patterns of representation
[i. e., language—T.F.] and labor can also be reduced to one common
denominator with the dialectics of moral action [i.e.,
interaction—T.F.]. For then the relationship of the name-giving and the
working subject can also be brought within the configuration of
is thus conceived as an object “with which interaction in the mode of
that between subjects is possible.”
Therefore, if nature is alienated Spirit, then the goal “is not the
appropriation of what has been objectified, but instead the
reconciliation, the restoration of the friendliness which has been
Habermas, as for the younger Hegel, labor and interaction are
heterogenous, irreducible to each other. This heterogeneity, as Habermas
sees it, is the basis for rejecting both Hegel’s and Marx’s theoretical
Hegel elevates nature to the status of subject, the Other of
Spirit. But Spirit is everything: between Spirit and its illusory Other,
neither interaction nor communication is possible as either of them are
possible between finite subjects, for “absolute spirit is solitary.”
Thus, in attempting to universalize interaction, Hegel destroys it at
the level of Absolute Spirit. On the other hand, a purely external
nature is just as disastrous for his philosophy of identity. The human
species’ instrumental, monologic relationship to nature asserts itself
in the face of Hegel’s attempt to dissolve it or ignore it in his
truth, however, is still only part of the story, and any attempt, such
as Marx’s, to extend it to the social totality in its entirety is wrong,
in Habermas’s view. It leads to errors that are perhaps more
“persuasive”—and therefore more difficult to overcome—than those that
follow from Hegel’s opposite onesideness with its resultant
However, Habermas’s critique of Marxism is
nonetheless Hegelian insofar as it places the dialectics of interaction
next to Marx’s dialectics of labor.
We trust that we have already shown
that Habermas is not interested in initiating an uncritical “back to
Hegel” movement, but Habermas nonetheless believes that Hegel’s insights
into the interactional dimension of human beings should not be thrown
out with the philosophy of identity.
here note Habermas’s sympathy with Marx’s attempt to ground a critical
social theory without succumbing to either Hegel’s idealism or to the
then emergent positivistic attack upon philosophy. Habermas declares
Hegel . . . a fatal misunderstanding arises: the idea that the claim
asserted by philosophical reason against the abstract thought of mere
understanding is equivalent to the usurpation of the legitimacy of
independent sciences by a philosophy claiming to retain its position as
universal scientific knowledge. But the actual fact of scientific
progress independent of philosophy had to unmask this claim, however
misunderstood, as bare fiction. It was this that served as the
foundation-stone of positivism. Only Marx could have contested its
victory. For he pursued Hegel’s critique of Kant without sharing the
basic assumption of the philosophy of identity that hindered Hegel from
unambiguously radicalizing the critique of knowledge.
Habermas’s disagreement with Marx is over the categorical framework Marx
employed in his investigations, a framework which “proves itself
insufficient to establish an unconditional phenomenological
self-reflection of knowledge and thus prevent the positivist atrophy of
Considered immanently, I see the reason for this in the
reduction of the self-generative act of the human species to labor.”
Habermas does point out that Marx “rediscovered that interconnection
between labor and interaction in the dialectic of the forces of
production and the relations of production.”
Indeed, in Marx’s concrete investigations one will find the categories
“of material activity and revolutionary practice, of labor and
reflection at once.”
Habermas insists, “Marx interprets what he does in the more restricted
conception of the species self-reflection through work alone.”
Thus, while Marx contributes to the true radicalization of the critique
of knowledge and actually surpasses the Hegelian viewpoint, he
nonetheless articulates this achievement in terms that allow a
positivistic misreading of his own works:
. . .
[F]or Marx, instrumental action, the productive activity which regulates
the material interchange of the human species with its natural
environment, becomes the paradigm for the generation of all the
categories; everything is resolved into the self-movement of production.
Because of this, Marx’s brilliant insight into the dialectical
relationship between the forces or production and the relations of
production could very quickly be misinterpreted in a mechanistic manner.
mechanistic interpretation would be one that claims that human evolution
is an automatic process whose driving force is the accumulation of
technically exploitable knowledge and which results in the eventual
displacement of all necessary labor by machine.
In such a view, the
object of social science is essentially no different from that of
natural science: knowledge in both cases simply involves the
accumulation, organization, and interpretation of empirical data; a
theory of knowledge is entirely unnecessary.
Human history, here, is
viewed as an outgrowth of natural history. The human species’ interactional dimension, wherein lies the species’ specific difference
(along with labor) from the rest of the animal kingdom, is lost in this
result, human self-comprehension becomes logically impossible, because
such comprehension operates at the level of interaction.
precisely the positivist’s conclusion: social science is practically
impossible due to the complexity of the data. Positivism does not see
the object of social science on its own terms, but rather as an
unmanageable variant of the “familiar” object of natural science.
The monologic relationship between the subject and the object is not
questioned even when the object is neither the solar system nor
molecules, but rather the class of subjects themselves, the human
species. Positivism does not view the possibility of social theory as
critique, as the critical self-reflection of social subjects.
Positivism, as Trent Schroyer defined it in his exposition of Habermas’s
is that conception of knowledge which denies the possibility of
reflective reconstruction of the transcendental principles
presupposed in human activity.
In such a methodological framework there is no room for critical
selfreflection or, more significantly, for the revolutionary
proletarian class consciousness Marx saw as a prerequisite for the
overthrow of capitalism.
Habermas is convinced that these positivistic elements pervade Marx’s
conception of what he was doing, but also that they contradict the
thrust of his work. This work is certainly, despite the lack of adequate
self-comprehension, an important attempt to develop a non-positivistic
Therefore, if the “transcendental principles presupposed
in human activity” can in fact be
reflexively reconstructed—and Habermas’s theory of cognitive interests
tries to reconstruct them—then positivism can be refuted and Marxism’s selfcomprehension can be brought in line with its actual scientific
We shall now take a closer look at Habermas’s account of
Habermas claimed that Marx developed implicitly a notion of material
synthesis (or a materialistic notion of synthesis) which he opposed to
the idealistic synthesis as developed by Kant, Fichte, and Hegel.
Marx, the self-reflection of consciousness discloses the structure of
social labor as that which synthesizes subject and object. Rejecting
Hegel’s assumption of subject-object identity, Marx “does not view
nature under the category of another subject, but conversely the subject
under the category of another nature.”
Unlike idealistic synthesis, material synthesis neither generates a
logical structure, nor is it absolute: human labor, rather than
transcendental consciousness, is the synthetic agent by which a
socio-economic structure is constituted; and since the subject-object
relation is historically determined and does not form an identity, it is
should recall from our earlier discussion of cognitive interests that
Habermas claims that there are two basic orientations of
knowledge-constitutive interests which direct human activity: the TCI
(Kantian moment) and the PCI (Fichtean moment).
Habermas’s critique of
Marx amounts to the charge that Marx reproduces both moments of material
synthesis, but reduces the PCI to a function of the TCI, thereby
actually abolishing the former as a distinct, irreducible moment.
Kantian moment reappears in Marx as the “invariant relation of the
species to the natural environment, which is established by the
behaviorial system of instrumental action—for labor processes are the
‘perpetual natural necessity of human life’ [Marx].”
Also, the Kantian noumenon or unknowable thing-in-itself
also reappears in Marx’s conception of nature. As Habermas explains
No matter how far our power of technical control over
nature is extended, nature retains a substantial core that does not
reveal itself to us.
may determine how nature is relativized to human beings in any epoch,
“but it does not eliminate the independence of its [nature’s]
existence.” The prior existence of the world is presupposed in
productive activity, though “we ourselves have access to nature only
within the historical dimension disclosed by labor processes.”
This essentially Kantian thrust corrects
the idealist attempt to reduce
nature to a mere externalization of mind [and] . . . preserves nature’s
immovable facticity despite nature’s historical embeddedness in the
universal structures of mediation constituted by laboring subjects.
labor does—and in doing so it parallels the activity of the Kantian
transcendental ego—is to give form to preexistent “raw material.”
Kantian subject can know only phenomena: the “things-in-themselves,” the
things as they are apart from any experiential relation to a subject,
pose no epistemological question and therefore, in principle, cannot be
Similarly, in “his production,” Marx wrote, “man can only proceed
like nature herself, that is only by changing the forms of substances.”
difference between Kant and Marx is that whereas Kant’s cognitive
process involves a logically unalterable set of categories that organize
experience, Marx’s labor process transforms nature according to
historically alterable technical rules; whereas Kant’s subject is never
among the objects it structures, Marx’s subject is always in the process
of being formed, not only directly by its own activity, but also by the
environment it has a hand in forming.
Fichtean moment receives an odd treatment in Marx’s framework: it
virtually becomes an aspect of the Kantian moment. Consider this
succinct and representative statement by Fichte:
In thinking of your present self-positing, which has been elevated
to clear consciousness, you must conceive of another such positing
having preceded it without clear consciousness; the present one
refers to the latter and is conditioned by it.
materialism appropriates this conception as follows, according to
Habermas: the social totality of laboring subjects confronts nature as
an ego confronts a non-ego.
Yet pre-existing nature obtains its identity
only through labor processes. As the labor process alters nature in
time, thereby bringing about a change in itself, the laboring subjects
themselves change; their identity therefore changes:
generation gains its identity only via a nature that has already been
formed in history, and this nature in turn is the object of its labor.
The system of social labor is always the result of the labor of past
generations . . . . The present subject has in some sense been “posited”
by the totality of preceding subjects, that is placed in a position to
come to grips with nature at its historically determined level. Yet it
cannot regard this totality as an alien subject. For the labor processes
through which it [i.e., the totality of preceding subjects−T.F.] has
been constituted themselves belong to the very same production in which
it [i.e., the present subject−T.F.] is engaged and which it is merely
carrying forward. In its labor the present subject comprehends itself by
knowing itself to have been produced as by itself through the production
of past subjects. 
Marx, therefore, social identity is an achievement of labor: the species
posits itself and thereby forms itself only in the process of
Marx does not view the interest in social identity
as a relatively autonomous human dimension, but rather relegates it to a
subordinate aspect of the interest in control over nature.
writings, Habermas argues, one finds that the “absolute ego of social
production is founded in a history of nature that brings about the
tool-making animal as a result.” 
himself declared that human beings “begin to distinguish themselves from
animals as soon as they begin to produce their means of subsistence, a
step that is conditioned by their bodily organization” and that the
“first state of affairs of which to take note is therefore the bodily
organization of these individuals and the relation it sets up between
them and the rest of nature.”
other words, what is distinct about the human species is—above all, if
not solely—its instrumental relation to nature.
Habermas differs with Marx. For Habermas, the human species’ interests
in identity and control over nature are coequal and distinct aspects of
the species’ self-generative act.
If what Marx claimed on this point
were literally true, Marx’s own critique of mystificatory ideology would
be incomprehensible because that critique by no means logically follows
from the concept of capitalist production.
It can only be comprehended
as an instance of human self-comprehension which, as we have attempted
to argue earlier in this paper, must be brought under the categorical
framework of symbolic interaction.
By restricting himself to the
categorical framework of instrumental action, Marx is forced to
misconceive his own critique as natural science.
considering, for example, “the economic law of modern society” as a
“natural law,” he significantly
quotes at length and with clear approval a Russian reviewer’s assessment
of his method as it is employed in Capital: the one aim of that book,
the reviewer states, is
show, by rigid scientific investigation, the necessity of successive
determinate orders of social conditions, and to establish as impartially
as possible, the facts that serve him for fundamental starting points .
. . . Marx treats the social movement as a process of natural history,
governed by laws not only independent of human will, consciousness and
intelligence, but rather on the contrary, determining that will,
consciousness and intelligence.
had positivism influenced this great revolutionary’s notions of what
constitutes founded knowledge of social relations: Marx’s critique of
the reifications of capitalism is defective at the level of
Habermas’s position is that the species regenerates itself through
productive labor, but forms itself through a Hegelian-like,
intersubjective “struggle for recognition.”
This interactional dimension
that Habermas wishes to recover takes the form of the class struggle in
modern, i.e., capitalist, societies.
In his view the class struggle is
not confined to an institutionalized power struggle over the
distribution of surplus value, a direct function of the production
process. Rather, it is the arena of intersubjective relations in which
conflicting self-conceptions, most of them illusory, confront and test
technologies can free human beings from necessary labor, i.e., the
domination of nature, only if human beings first overcome the domination
they impose upon themselves in class-divided societies. Productive
knowledge cannot substitute for the self-reflective knowledge people
need. The distinct processes which result in these two different kinds
of knowledge, though interdependent,
do not converge . . . . Marx tried
in vain to capture this [relative autonomy—T.F.] in the dialectic of
the forces of production and relations of production. In vain—for the
meaning of this “dialectic” must remain unclarified as long as the
materialist concept of the synthesis of man and nature is restricted
to the categorical framework of production.
the emphasis should be on the words “categorical framework”: Habermas
recognizes that at “the level of his material investigations . . . Marx
always takes account of social practice that encompasses both work and
Habermas claims that Marx has shown, in his substantive analyses of
capitalist society, that the class struggle does not primarily take the
form of brute force but rather of ideological delusion: products of
labor do not appear as social relations between people, but as physical,
quantifiable relations between things.
commodification of human labor, Habermas writes, “makes the object of
conflict unrecognizable” for capitalists and workers alike; this process
“conceals and expresses the suppression of an unconstrained dialogic
illusion and the overcoming of it by social subjects through critique
are simply not comprehensible as merely the ideational “feedback” of the
corrective for Marxism, Habermas suggests a “reconstruction of the
manifestations of the consciousness of classes”—a sort of materialistic
Phenomenology of Spirit—to be given the same attention as is
given to the tracing out of the development of modes of production if
the methodological foundations of critical social theory are to be
parity between the categories “production” and “interaction” provides
the possibility of a dialectical theory of the relation between the
so-called “base” and “superstructure,” which Habermas reconceptualizes
as PRAS’s and SIS’s.
revision should also reduce the occurrence of mechanistic treatments of
the relationship between these two systems in actual studies, since such
mistreatments would be in direct conflict with the methodological
Truly dialectical studies of social reality could then be
grounded as such, and not simply declared to be dialectical in the face
of presuppositions that do not allow dialectical conclusions to follow.
Finally, Habermas’s argument, if it is to be accepted, carries with it
implications for the history of Marxism.
“Vulgar Marxist” errors of the
past century and a quarter may owe more to a misreading of Marx’s
overall argument than of some of his texts.
A closer examination of the
supposedly misrepresentative “mechanistic” reading of Marx attributed
by many to Engels, Lenin, and Stalin may indicate a greater fidelity to
the letter of Marx than their accusers have allowed—although this may as
well indicate certain unclarities in Marx’s thought itself, as
Habermas’s critique suggests.
Quoted in Jürgen Habermas, Knowledge and Human Interests (Boston,
1972), p. 7. Hereafter cited as KHI.
KHI, p. 10.
KHI, p. 25.
KHI, p. 25.
KHI, p. 26.
KHI, p. 196.
KHI, p. 152
KHI, pp. 197-98.
This appears in Habermas’s book, Theory and Practice (Boston,
1974), pp. 142-69. Hereafter cited as TAP. 10 TAP, p. 162.
TAP, p. 159.
Quoted in KHI. p. 26.
Quoted in TAP, p. 163, substituting “prepositing,” the translator’s
parenthetical, but literal and clearer, rendering of Voraussetzen
for his actual, but somewhat misleading, choice, “presupposing.”
TAP. p. 163.
TAP, p. 164.
24; my emphasis.
TAP. p. 168.
KHL p. 42.
42; my emphasis.
Trent Schroyer, The Critique of Domination (New York, 1973), p.
Ibid., p. 115.
KHI, p. 32.
KHI, pp. 31. 32.
KHI, p. 35.
KHI, p. 33.
KHI, p. 35.
KHI, p. 34.
Quoted in KHI, pp. 34-35.
Quoted in KHI. p. 38.
KHI. p. 39; correcting translator’s ungrammatical “labor processes . . .
itself [sic] belong . . . .”
KHI. p. 41.
Quoted in KHI, p. 41.
Quoted in KHI, p. 45.
Quoted in KHI, p. 46; substituting the standard Moore and Aveling
translation of Capital (New York, 1967), Vol. I, p. 18; my
KHI. p. 55, substituting “categorical” for the text’s “categorial” in
keeping with this paper’s terminology.
KHI, p. 53.
KHI, p. 59.
Note: In his
Habermas and Marxism: An Appraisal (Beverly Hills:
Sage Publications, 1979), one of the first books on the subject,
Julius Sensat wrote:
Response on the left to Habermas's
work has frequently taken the form either of unreserved enthusiasm or of absolute
rejection, with the justification of either position never getting much
beyond the level of polemics. (p. 11)
The reader is referred to this
In my opinion this is
not true of [the present essay] . . . .
While more sympathetic to Habermas's critique than the present study,
Flood's essay makes a serious attempt at clarification of Habermas's
position and treats Habermas's view of Marxism as "a sympathetically
critical one from Marxists should learn, even as they attempt to answer
To ease the reader’s struggle with my turgid prose, I have broken up
many of the original paragraphs into smaller units.
Also, ambiguity of reference marred the essay's original overlong sentence,
so I changed the ungrammatical “former's accusers” to “their
accusers” (i.e., accusers of Engels, Lenin, and Stalin.
Finally, the "T.F."
in parentheses stands for "Tony Flood," the name under which
this essay was originally published.